One of the most powerful congressmen in California is in the toughest political fight of his life — a fight with a fellow longtime Democrat.
Congressman Howard Berman is in the odd position of facing fellow Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman because the new independent citizens commission redistricted them into the same San Fernando Valley district. The intention was to create a new Latino district, but KPCC’s Frank Stoltze says the result is one of the hottest political races in the country.
For four decades, Berman’s been an untouchable Democratic Party powerhouse in California — first, as a state legislator, and then as a congressman whose district includes much of the eastern San Fernando Valley. Then, the redistricting commission released its new political boundaries.
71-year-old Berman landed in the same western San Fernando Valley-based district as 57-year-old Sherman, a Valley congressman for 15 years. More than half the district sits within Sherman’s current district; that leaves Berman at a distinct disadvantage. Another Democratic giant — and longtime Berman ally — Congressman Henry Waxman urged Sherman to move north to a Ventura district, in deference to the elder. Sherman balked, and Berman went on the offensive.
“Brad’s passed three bills in his 15 years in congress — two of them naming post offices," said Berman. “That’s a silly yardstick for measuring a member of congress.”
Sherman says his approach to lawmaking is different than Berman’s.
“Most of my work is in amending and shaping legislation that doesn’t have my name on it," said Sherman.
Sherman, a Certified Public Accountant, tax lawyer and former member of the state Board of Equalization points toward 2008 to highlight his successes.
“My number one accomplishment was blocking and forcing the re-tooling of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout known as TARP," said Sherman.
At the time, Sherman took to the House floor as a member of what was known as the 'skeptics caucus,' amid rampant fears of economic collapse.
”This bill is not going to solve the problem. People think if you act in a panic and throw $700 billion at it, you’re going to solve it. Hardly," said Sherman on the House floor.
Howard Berman supported the original bailout bill. He’s unlikely to ever join a 'skeptics caucus.' Having mastered the arcane legislative rules of the House, he prefers to work the levers of power from the inside.
“By and large, politics is a team sport. The more relationships you have, the more alliances you have, the more effective you can be," said Berman.
Berman’s longevity has earned him seniority in the House. He’s the ranking Democrat on the powerful Foreign Relations Committee.
Differing political styles
Another big difference between Berman and Sherman is the way they interact with their constituents.
Sherman sips iced tea with voters at a meet and greet in a San Fernando Valley living room. He’s held 160 town halls like this during his time in office — compared to Berman’s relative handful. Outside, Vera Highland says she likes Sherman.
“I also like Howard Berman. I actually helped work on his campaign," said Highland. "I’m checking everybody out.”
She glances around nervously, hoping not to offend anyone. Her friend who hosted the event is a big Sherman backer.
Many Democratic voters are divided because Berman and Sherman hold similar political views — on immigration, the environment and U.S. support for Israel. Both are Jewish. They do differ on the economic bailout and trade issues. Sherman is more protectionist — that’s one reason more labor unions prefer him.
Berman has been called “Hollywood’s Congressman.” He’s helped sponsor anti-piracy legislation.
Suddenly, Sherman’s mother walks up. She’d attended the tea inside the house.
“I’m Lane Sherman, I’m Brad’s mother. So I was interested to hear what you were saying," she says. “I’m just very pleased that he’s happy and he has a family.”
This kind of intimacy between candidates, their families and voters is relatively new in politics, especially for people like Berman who was first elected to public office in 1972.
“The world he is running in is not the world he came up in. It’s probably a little more of the world that Sherman came up in," said political scientist Raphe Sonenshein. “I think you’re looking at a period now where the general disdain for politics and parties and politicians that was always strong in California just keeps getting stronger. And the ability to connect with voters is extremely important.”
Like connecting the way Sherman does in his frequent town halls.
In this heavily Democratic district, the Los Angeles County Republican Party backs businessman Mark Reed. But Reed has raised just $40,000. Under California’s new open primary system, the top two vote getters — regardless of party affiliation — will advance to November.
Sherman’s raised $6 million, Berman $3 million, plus he’s received help from a political action committee that’s poured $500,000 into the race. Sherman’s called on his opponent to reject the outside help. Berman, who needs the cash to compete, has declined. Campaign flyers flood voters’ mailboxes. Sherman-Berman, Berman-Sherman. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is saying what.
Berman stands on a platform atop the Sherman Oaks Galleria overlooking the 405 Freeway.
“You see that? I’m responsible for the northbound side of it," he says. Berman helped secure federal money for the widening of the freeway. Its northbound lanes are already complete.
Sherman argues that he helped secure matching state money. Sherman Oaks Homeowners' Association President Richard Close credits Berman most, and backs him in the race. But he doesn’t like having to choose.
“It’s a bad race. It’s a race between two people that are very similar. It is a heartbreaker because you want both of them to remain in Washington,” said Close.
As Sherman even said, the race represents something of an “embarrassment of riches” for Democrats.